Monday, April 28, 2014

Ruski by William S. Burroughs

I don’t remember when Ruski first came into the house. I remember sitting in a chair by the fireplace with the front door open and he saw me from fifty feet away and ran up, giving the special little squeaks I never heard from another cat, and jumped into my lap, nuzzling and purring and putting his little paws up to my face, telling me he wanted to be my cat.

But I didn’t hear him.

There were three kittens born at the Stone House. The mother was a small black-and-white cat. Obviously the big white cat was the father. One kitten was an albino. The other two were predominantly white, except for their tails and paws, which were brown to black. The big gray male looked after the kittens as if they were his own. He was gray like Ruski, except for a white chest and stomach. I named him Horatio. He was a noble, manly cat, and had a strong, sweet nature.

Ruski hated the little cats. He was the cute little cat. They were interlopers. The one time I slapped Ruski was for attacking one of the kittens, and I have seen the mother drive him out of the barn when the kittens were there. And Ruski was terrified of Horatio. One evening on the back porch Horatio walked over to Ruski  (he wasn’t Ruski then. I didn’t yet know he was a Russian Blue, I called him Smokey.) He walked over in a casual but determined manner and lit into Smoke, who ran under the table.

I have observed that in cat fights the aggressor is almost always the winner. If a cat is getting the worst of a fight he doesn’t hesitate to run, whereas a dog may fight to his stupid death.  As my old jiujitsu instructor said, “If your trick no work, better run.”

June 3, 1982. Perhaps I should do one of those sprightly ‘fixing up my country house” books. .  .  . First Year in the Garden .  .  . a chapter on the White Cat who got his ass bit by a dog, and the gray cat .  .  .  such a handsome animal. Smokey we call him, after Colonel Smokey, the narc in Maurice Helbrant’s Narcotic Agent, bound with Junkie in the Ace edition .  .  . well, Smokey is getting to be a real nuisance, fawning all over me and putting his face up to mine, rubbing his head against my hand and following me around when I am trying to shoot. It’s almost spooky. I am looking to find a good home for Smokey.

A Nazi initiation into the upper reaches of the SS was to gouge out the eye of a pet cat and cuddling it for a month. This exercise was designed to eliminate all traces of pity-poison and mold a full Ubermensch. There is a sound magical postulate involved: the practitioner achieves superhuman status be performing some atrocious, revolting, subhuman act. In Morocco, magic men gain power by eating their own excrement.

But dig out Ruski’s eyes? Stack bribes to the radioactive sky. What does it profit a man? I could not occupy a body that could dig out Ruski’s eyes. So who gained the whole world? I didn’t. Any bargain involving exchange of qualitative values like animal love for quantitative advantage is not only dishonorable, as wrong as a man can get, it is also foolish. Because you get nothing. You have sold your you.

“Well, how does that beautiful young red-haired body grab you?” Yes, He will always find a sucker like Faust, to sell his soul for a strap-on. You want adolescent sex, you have to pay for it in adolescent fear, shame, confusion. In order to enjoy something you have to be there. You can’t just sweep in from desert, dearie.

I remember the one time I ever slapped Ruski for attacking one of the kittens. The way he looked at me, the shock and hurt, was identical with the look I got from my amigo Kiki. I was sleepy and petulant. He came in and started pushing at me, and I finally slapped him. In both cases I had to make amends. Ruski disappeared but I knew where he was. I went out to the barn and found him and brought him back. Kiki sat there with a tear in the corner of his eye. I apologized and finally he came around.

Fifteen years ago I dreamt I had caught a white cat on a hook and line. For some reason I was about to reject the creature and throw it back, but it rubbed against me, mewling piteously.

Reading over these notes, which were simply a journal of my year at the Stone House, I am absolutely appalled. So often, looking over my past life, I exclaim: “My God, who is this?” Seen from here I appear as a most unsightly cartoon of someone who is awful enough to begin with .  .  . simpering, complacent, callous . . . “Got his ass bit by a dog.” “Leaving one feeling vaguely guilty” .  .  . “like an Arab boy who knows he is being naughty” .  .  .snippy old English queen voice .  .  . “I am looking to find a good home for Smokey.”

I don’t think anyone could write a completely honest autobiography. I am sure no one could bear to read it: My Past Was an Evil River.

There are crucial moments in any relationship, turning points. I had been away for ten days at Naropa. During my absence Bill Rich went out every day to feed the cats.

I have returned. Late afternoon on the back porch. I see Ruski and he moves away. Then he rolls on his side, tentative, not quite sure. I scoop him up and sit down on the edge of the porch. There is a clear moment when he recognizes me and begins squeaking and purring and nuzzling. In that moment I finally know he is my cat, and decide to take him when I leave the Stone House.

Since I adopted Ruski, the cat dreams are vivid and frequent. Often I dream that Ruski has jumped onto my bed. Of course this sometimes happens, and Fletch is a constant visitor, jumping up on the bed and cuddling against me, purring so loud I can’t sleep.

The Land of the Dead .  .  . A reek of boiling sewage, coal gas and burning plastics .  .  .oil patches .  . . roller coasters and Ferris wheels overgrown with rank weeds and vines. I can’t find Ruski. I am calling his name .  .  . “Ruski! Ruski! Ruski!”

A deep feeling of sadness and foreboding.
“I shouldn’t have brought him out here!”
I wake up with tears streaming down my face.

Notes from early 1985: my connection with Ruski is a basic factor in my life. Whenever I travel, someone Ruski knows and trusts must come and live in the house to look after him and call the vet if anything goes wrong. I will cover any expense.

When Ruski was in the hospital with pneumonia I called every few hours. I remember once there was a long pause and the doctor came on to say, “I’m sorry, Mr. Burroughs” .  .  . the grief and desolation that closed around me. But he was only apologizing for the long wait .  .  . “Ruski is doing fine .  .  . temperature down .  .  .I think he is going to make it.” And my elation the following morning. “Down to almost normal. Another day and he can come home.”

August 9, 1984, Thursday. My relationship with my cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance. When a barn cat finds a human patron who will elevate him to a house cat, he tends to overdo it in the only way he knows; by purring and nuzzling and rubbing and rolling on his back to call attention to himself. Now I find this extremely touching and ask how I could ever have found it a nuisance. All relationships are predicated on exchange, and every service has its price. When a cat is sure of his position, as Ruski is now, he becomes less demonstrative, which is as it should be.

James was downtown at Seventh and Massachusetts when he heard a cat mewing very loudly as if in pain. He went over to see what was wrong and the little black cat leapt into his arms. He brought it back to the house and when I started to open a tin of cat food the little beast jumped up onto the sideboard and rushed at the can. He ate himself out of shape, shit the litter box full, then shit on the rug. I have named him Fletch. He is all flash and glitter and charm, gluttony transmuted by innocence and beauty. Fletch, the little black foundling, is an exquisite, delicate animal with glistening black fur, a sleek black head like an otter’s, slender and sinuous, with green eyes.
I kept Fletch in the house for five days lest he run away, and when we let him out he scuttled forty feet up a tree. The scene has a touch of Rousseau’s Carnival Evening .  .  . a smoky moon, teenagers eating spun sugar, lights across the midway, a blast of circus music and Fletch is forty feet up and won’t come down. Shall I call the fire department? Then Ruski goes up the tree and brings Fletch down.

A year later Ruski’s son by Calico Jane is stuck up the same tree. It is getting dark. I can see him up there with my flashlight, but he won’t come down, so I all Wayne Propst, who is coming with a ladder. I go out and shine my light up the tree and see Fletch’s red collar. And Fletch brings the little cat down.

An English cat hater of the upper classes confided  to me that he had trained a dog to break a cat’s back in one shake. And I remember he caught sight of a cat at a party and snarled out through the long yellow horse teeth that crowded out his mouth, “Nasty stinking little beast!” I was impressed by his class at the time and knew nothing of cats. Now I would get up from my chair and say, “Pawdon me, old thing, if I toddle along, but there’s a nasty stinking big beast here.”

I will take this occasion to denounce and excoriate the vile English practice of riding to the hounds. So the sodden huntsmen can watch a beautiful, delicate fox torn to pieces by their stinking dogs. Heartened by this loutish spectacle, they repair to the manor house to get drunker than thy already are, no better than their filthy, fawning, shit-eating, carrion-rolling, baby-killing beasts.

Warning to all young couples who are expecting a blessed event: Get rid of that family dog. .  .  .

This cat book is an allegory, in which the writer’s past life is presented to him in a cat charade. Not that the cats are puppets. Far from it. They are living, breathing creatures, and when any other being is contacted, it is sad: because you see the limitations, the pain and fear and the final death. That is what contact means. That is what I see when I touch a cat and find that tears are flowing down my face.

April 2, 1985. Ruski is on the desk by the north window. I pet him. Her squeaks and nuzzles me and goes to sleep. I feel his sad, lost voice in my throat, stirring, aching. When you feel grief like that, tears streaming down your face, it is always a portent, a warning – danger ahead.

May 1, 1985. A feeling of deep sadness is always a warning to be heeded. It may refer to events which will happen in weeks, months, even years. In this case exactly one month.

Yesterday I walked up to the house on Nineteenth Street, depression and pain dragging every step. Ruski has not been to the house this morning.

I received Ruski’s desperate call for help, the sad, frightened voice I first heard a month ago.


I know where he is. I call the Humane Society.
“No. We have no cat of that description”
“Are you sure?”
“Wait, let me check again . . . (Cries of frightened animals.)
“Well, yes, we do have a cat of that description.”
“I’ll e right there.”
“Well, you have to go to the city clerk with your certificate for rabies vaccination and pay a ten-dollar pick-up fee.”

All this is accomplished in half an hour with the aid of David Ohle. We arrive at the animal shelter. The place is a death camp, haunted by the plaintive, despairing cries of lost cats waiting to be put to sleep.

“That is one scared cat!” the girl says as she leads me to the “Holding,” as it is called. Frozen with fear, Ruski cowers with another terrified cat on a steel shelf. She unlocks the door. I reach in and gently lift my cat into his box.

After seventy-two hours in Holding, the animals are put up for adoption. The animals know. Animals always know death when they see it. Better put your best paw forward. It’s your last chance, Kitty.

What chance would Ruski have, a full-grown, unneutered cat paralyzed with fear? One scared cat.

“Oh, Daddy, I want that one!” Little boy points to Ruski.
“Well, we wouldn’t advise .  .  . he’s not very responsive.”
“Guess we’ll pass on that one, Punky.”
Ruski gives a meow of despair as they walk on.

I question the underlying assumption that one does a cat a favor by killing him .  .  . oh, sorry .  .  . I mean “putting him to sleep.” Turn to backward countries that don’t have Humane Societies for a simple alternative. In Tangier stray cats fend for themselves. I remember an eccentric old English lady in Tangier. Every morning she went to the fish market and filled a bag with cheap fish and made the rounds of vacant lots and other locales where stray cats congregated. I have seen as many as thirty cats rush up at her approach.

Well, why not? The money now spent on caging and killing cats could maintain actual shelters with food dispensers. Of course the cats would have to be neutered and vaccinated for rabies.

That night, for the first time in three years, Ruski jumped onto my bed purring and chittering, nuzzled against me and went to sleep thanking me for saving him.

Next day I called Animal Control. “My cat was picked up and taken to the shelter and I want to know the circumstances.”

“The circumstances are that it’s illegal to let your cat run free.”

“No, I mean how did my cat happen to be picked up?”

It seems he was caught in an animal trap, about two hundred yards from the back line of my property. Probably he had been shut in the box trap all night. No wonder he was a scared cat.

At the time I didn’t know about animal traps. I didn’t know that cats could be picked up. Close. Very close. Suppose I had been away. Suppose . . . I don’t want to. It hurts. Now all my cats wear rabies tags.

The cry I heard through Ruski was not only his signal of distress. It was a sad, plaintive voice of lost spirits, the grief that comes from knowing you are the last of your kind. There can be no witness to this grief. No witnesses remain. It must have happened many times in the past. It is happening now. Endangered species. Not just those that actually exist, or existed at one time and died, but all the creatures that might have existed.

A hope, a chance. The chance lost. The hope dying. A cry following the only one who could hear it when he is already too far away to hear, an aching wrenching sadness. This is a grief without witness. “You are the last. Last human crying.” The cry is very old. Very few can hear it. Very painful. The chance was there for an enchanted moment. The chance was lost. Wrong turn, Wrong time. Too soon. Too late. To invoke all-out magic is to risk the terrible price of failure. To know that chance was lost because you failed. This grief can kill.

Life, such as it is, goes on. Dillon’s is still open from seven a.m. to twelve midnight, seven days a week.
 I am the cat who walks alone. To me all supermarkets are alike.

I am drinking Dillon’s fresh-squeezed orange juice and eating farm-fresh eggs out of an egg cup I bought in Amsterdam. Wimpy rolls, nuzzling my feet, purring I love you I love you I love you. He loves me.
Meeeowww. “Hello Bill.”

The distance from there to here is the measure of what I have learned from cats.

All you cat lovers, remember all the millions of cats mewling through the world’s rooms lay all their hopes and trust in you, as the little mother cat at the Stone House laid her head in my hand, as Calico Jane put her babies in my suitcase, as Fletch jumped into James’ arms and Ruski rushed towards me chittering with joy.

We are the cats inside. We are the cats who cannot walk alone, and for us there is only one place.

The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs, 1986

Thursday, April 24, 2014

William Burrough's Work by Barry Miles

That summer (1983) at Naropa, Bill was asked by Allen Ginsberg to provide a reading list for his students. He listed more than one hundred books plus “the complete works” of Kafka. Genet, and Fitzgerald. He handed the pages to Allen. Allen was outraged and stamped his feet, accusing Burroughs of simply listing everything he had on his bookshelf.

“What’s this?” he demanded, pointing to Intern by Doctor X.

“That, Allen, is a doctor book. I assure you it’s a very good one.” Bill spoke quietly, as if talking to a recalcitrant student.

“But they can’t read all these,” fumed Allen.

“They are the books I like,” said Bill, pursing his lips.

“Where’s Kerouac?” demanded Allen. William did not reply, just placed his fingers together and pursed his lips some more, biding his time. Allen knew better than to argue and the list was duly photocopied and distributed for Bill’s class.

Burroughs had never thought much of Kerouac’s actual writing, and had always been irritated by Kerouac’s various portrayal’s of him as well as the way that he was lumped together with him by the critics, Allen Ginsberg included, who often assumed that Kerouac was an influence on his work. “I said that he had an influence in encouraging me to write, not an influence on what I wrote . […] So far as our style of work and content, we couldn’t be more opposite. He always said that the first draft was the best. I said, ‘Well, that may work for you, Jack, but it doesn’t work for me.’ I’m used to writing and rewriting things at least three times. It’s just a completely different way of working.”

Burroughs also depended upon his friends  to assist when it came time for the final draft. James Grauerholz worked long and hard to knock the manuscript of Cities of the Red Night into shape. Allen Ginsberg played an important role in shaping both Junky and Queer, and worked on the early drafts of The Naked Lunch. The Naked Lunch itself was typed and shaped largely by Brion Gysin and Sinclair Beiles while Bill stuck photos of the Peruvian jungle on the wall and shot at them with his air gun. The Soft Machine was assembled and edited entirely by Ginsberg and Gysin while Burroughs was in Tangier, and Ian Sommerville had a lot to do with both The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. This is how Burroughs always worked.  All Burrough’s major books are fugitive. No fixed text seems possible, each version points up different aspects of Burrough’s vision, and ultimately they have to be seen as one giant multivolume book including all the different versions.

Years of research and work on Cities of the Red Night gave Burroughs six hundred pages of material to use as a starter for The Place of Dead Roads. In April 1984 he told the East Village Eye that the new book was well under way. “The overflow from Dead Roads was about 7-800 pages. I always had material to draw on for the next one. So in a sense the next one is well under way by the time I finish the one I am doing. […] I never know what’s going to happen. I don’t plan the novel out. I don’t even have any idea how this novel I’m writing is going to end or where it’s going from where it is now, or how much of that material will be useable.”

In the last years of his life Burroughs began painting. He had no formal art training, but felt that maybe that was a good thing given his way of approaching art. “There might be something on my mind, I try to just let my hand do it, to see with my hand. And then look at it, see what has happened. I may see quite clearly in there something that I’ve seen recently in a magazine or a newspaper, whatever, emerging. I can’t consciously draw anything. I can’t draw a recognizable chair – it looks like a four-year-old’s.” The initial “killing of the canvas,” making random marks to overcome the tyranny of the white rectangle, provided the subject matter; in among the whorls of paint, a subject emerged. “I don’t know what I’m painting until I see it. In fact I’ve done a lot with my eyes closed. The point was to get started.

It was the ‘surprised recognition” that Burroughs was after. “It applies to any art form. That’s what I try to do in painting. Klee said a painter strives to create something that has an existence apart from him and which could endanger him. Now the most clear proof of something being separate is if it can harm you. […] I do think all writers, many other writers and painters are trying to create something that has an existence apart from themselves. It would literally step out of the picture or the book. So all artists are trying to achieve what some people would say is impossible, that is to create life. Of course, impossible is a meaningless word to me.”

This fits in with Burrough’s cut-in theory: the recognition of connections between phrases suggested by a random process; with his occult experiments with crystal balls; with the random cut-ins on his tape experiments; and with the emerging images from random visual events. “That’s what it’s all about. The way that clear representational objects will emerge from what would seem to be a random procedure.”

In many ways Burrough’s art was a self-exploratory process. According to Allen Ginsberg, Burrough’s use of sex, for example, was to explore his own sexual position, “rehearsing it over and over again, to sort of take it outside himself, exteriorize it on the page and repeat it over and over again in a mechanical way in different forms until his obsessive neurotic images lose their magnetic, hypnotic attraction or their conditioned attraction and become common-place.”  This is somewhat similar  to  and helps explain Burroughs long-time attraction to Scientology which he explained has a system of therapy called ‘clearing’ in which you ‘run’ traumatic material which they call ‘engrams’ until it loses its emotional connotation through repetitions and is then refilled with neutral memory.”

The role of drugs in Burrough’s life and art cannot be overemphasized. From the mid-forties, when his nostalgie de la boue led him to the criminal circles where he became addicted to morphine, he was involved in the drug subculture. Though not always addicted, he was rarely sober from then on: all his books were written on marijuana, which he used through-out his lifetime, and/or opiates. Despite his frequent claims to the contrary, much of of the original material in The Naked Lunch was written while he was heavily addicted to Eukodol, a form of morphine, and everything written after his return to the United States in 1974 was written on opiates; he switched to the methadone program for the last seventeen years of his life. He also drank a good deal, sometimes lapsing into alcoholism. Drugs were an enormously important part of his life: they were an all-consuming interest and also the subject of most of his writing. He was ambivalent about them, on and off, for and against, for much of his life, but in old age he felt that becoming a junkie was the best thing he ever did, because without it he would not have written The Naked Lunch or encountered the demimonde of underground characters that populate his work.

Burroughs did not live a happy life; he was plagued by loneliness and lack of love, racked with guilt, not just over the death of his wife, but for his neglect of friends and family. But to those in Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent the last years of his life, he was an inspirational presence. He had a lot of advice for young men. He wasn’t a softy but he was really warm and likable. He had an endearing manner and retained his mental agility to the end.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Danish Exception by Bo Lidegaard

The genocide of the Jews was not a plan that ran amok but a decisive effort by the Nazi leadership. It was a project that was considered vital for Germany’s survival and essential for the Third Reich’s victory. Therefore it was central both politically and administratively. It was a goal that Hitler and his closest allies did not think they could afford to lose sight of – a goal they pursued with even greater zeal in step with the growing problems at the fronts, and with even greater vigor as the more or less voluntary allies of the Third Reich became less and less enthusiastic about their role in this barbarous endeavor.

In 1996, Daniel Goldhagen published an extensive study of the general public’s knowledge of and involvement in the implementation of the Holocaust. Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a disturbing account because Goldhagen shows how many Germans were implicated in the nefarious project. But it is especially disturbing because it reveals chauvinism’s roots in Germany, and how appallingly widespread the thinking was that led to the mass extermination of fellow citizens. It shows how deeply the problem was rooted in the general population, who allowed themselves to put so much credence in the systematic description of the Jews as a threatening foreign body that they lost their basic compassion and empathy – the starting points for all peaceful coexistence.

Goldhagen makes little mention of the few exceptions where the Holocaust failed – such as Bulgaria and Denmark. His focus is on the general picture and the underlying driving forces, and he concludes: “the destruction of the Jews, once it had become achievable, took priority even over safeguarding Nazism’s very existence.” The extermination continued to the bitter end, long after it was clear that the Third Reich would be defeated.

The German historian Peter Longerich has a somewhat different interpretation. He agrees with many of Goldhagen’s observations, but gives different answers when it comes to what the German population knew – or avoided knowing. In Longerich’s interpretation the Jewish extermination was an open secret. All the elements were commonly known, and anyone had the opportunity to recognize mass murder as the objective, and to know about the scope of the genocide. But that still does not mean that most Germans knew what was going on. Longerich believes that most closed their eyes and ears and shied away from seeing the scale of the criminality, and many protected themselves against the sense that insight entailed responsibility.  It was clear that something was going on, and that everyone suspected the worse. But Longerich’s point is that the majority wanted anything but the transformation of their fears into certain knowledge: “Between knowledge and ignorance, there was a broad gray area marked by rumors and half –truths, fantasy, forced and self-imposed limitations in communication. It lies between not wanting to know and not being able to understand.”

In one crucial point, the Nazi action in Denmark distinguishes itself clearly from all previous raids and actions against Jews initiated elsewhere; in Denmark it took place under the eyes of an immensely indignant and protective society, while the Swedish press delivered live coverage. This is exactly why the Nazis apparatus failed in the case of Denmark.

What ultimately stopped the extermination of Jews on Danish soil was the expressed and entrenched Danish opposition to the project. The many protests from high and low, from church and business, from politicians and state secretaries, confirmed what local Nazi administrators had long known and told Berlin: there was a deeply rooted aversion in the Danish population to the idea of introducing special laws and measures against the Jews. Since 1933 the Danish government had forcefully rejected any attempt to create a divide between Danes based on descent. Rather, those who attacked democracy had been excluded from the national “us,” while the leading politicians succeeded in equating the nation with the values its social order rested upon. This adherence to humanism became a bulwark its social order rested upon. Even cooperation with the occupying power had not undermined the Danish government’s attitude toward the concrete requirements of humanity and love thy neighbor. An unarmed people rebelled against a power with all kinds of tricks, with adventurous artifice and disguise and courage – but first and foremost with solidarity of deep indignation. By completely rejecting the ideas that excluded the Jews from the national “us”, Denmark deprived the Nazis of the fig leaf they needed to justify discrimination and legitimize the deed.

Hannah Arendt, in her 1964 book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann wrote: “politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazi met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds.  They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had  met resistance based on principle, and their ‘toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage.”

Today, Hannah Arendt’s observations can be taken even further, as it is clear that the orders from Berlin were also softened in relation to the Jews in Denmark. It turns out that even leading Nazis in Berlin and Copenhagen needed the local understanding and support that would give the crime an aura of necessity and justice. Without this even the most hardened Nazis shrank back. Public participation was therefore not only a practical condition for the implementation of the project; its support was also a prerequisite for leading Nazis’ daring to set atrocities in motion. Even these experienced Nazis with blood on their hands ( e.g. Eichmann, Himmler, Ribbentrop) could not or would not go all the way alone. Even they depended on the understanding and support of the project, which was absolutely missing in Denmark. Without it they faltered, and extermination of the Jews came to appear as a goal; that had to be weighed against other, more practical considerations.

The leading Nazis’s complicity in making the flight of Denmark’s Jews to Sweden possible suggests they were led by practical considerations. In the Danish context, continued cooperation with the ‘model protectorate’ and maintaining the flow or agricultural and mineral supplies weighed more heavily than the desire to annihilate the Jews.

Senior Nazis involvement was not driven by personal necessity. Hatred of the different was not some primordial force that was unleashed. Rather, it was a political convenience that could be used as needed and in most occupied territories the Nazis followed their interest in pursuing this with disastrous consequences. But without a sounding board- chauvinism and the refusal to transform fears into certain knowledge- the strategy did not work. It could be countered by simple means – even by a country that was defenseless and occupied- by a persistent national  rejection assumption that there was a “Jewish problem” and  politicians who refuse to use suspicion of ‘the other’ as their political tool.

The escape of the Danish Jews happened because they acted on their own initiative when warned of the impending threat against them. The hesitation of the Nazi leadership in Berlin and their officials in Denmark was caused primarily by the expectation of the Danish reaction and its negative ramifications for both the ‘model protectorate’ and the continued shipment of Danish provisions to Germany. But what made this possible, before anything else, was the fact that Danish society as a whole had so quickly, so consistently, and with such determination turned against the very idea underpinning the persecution of their fellow countrymen, and mobilized with utmost unity of purpose to facilitate their rescue. Their attitude and capacity to overcome their fears was anchored in the preceding ten years of anti-totalitarian Danish politics. The miraculous escape of the Danish Jews cannot be fully understood outside that political context.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Juge de Paix at Najac


If this were were a Tuesday we would have a 2-1 chance of being less solitary on our green garden seat, where laziness and no work has tempted us to remain chatting or somnolent since breakfast time. A couple, at least, of small round tin tables would be set in the shade of the acacia trees, and peasants in sable dress – black boots, black trousers, black blouses, black hats, black beards, black eyes - would be seated drinking coffee from long glasses, or beer –enlivened by a dose of carbolic acid gas in Potato’s bottling establishment over the road –or red wine which is brought in casks from vineyards lying twenty miles to the south. The country reckons little of those strange aperatifs of the French town-dweller, those drinks of daring hue and astonishing taste which are used either to appetize or to minimize the results of appetizing; like the device of an impecunious young man who used to calm his tailor’s clamors for settlement by ordering more clothes. At one of the tables of funereally clad peasants a jaundiced-faced townsman, dressed in straw hat, tail coats and trousers of black and white check, would be talking earnestly and with authority. The peasants are litigants, the townsman a barrister. They would be waiting, we would be waiting, for the juge de paix. Najac is a chef-lieu-de canton, we have our fortnightly courts.

The juge de paix comes presently, round about half-past ten, walking with the jerky decision of celebrity. He looks not unlike Monsieur Poincare, but it is a Monsieur Poincare drawn by Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland, and the aggressive eyebrows of the French first minister are here pruned into gentleness. We all get up an follow him in a ragged procession to the corner of the triangular place and thence downhill a dozen buildings to the Mairie. The juge de paix is not quite the equivalent of our Justice of the Peace, he is more domestic: nor does he handle crime. Judge of the peace indeed he is not:  he is a human olive branch; his crest is a dove; his very questions – curious, naïve legal questions, French equivalents for the famous “Who is Connie Gilchrist?” – have a coo in them.

Maupassant has immortalized the juge de paix in Le Cas de Madame Luneau and Tribunaux Rustique. To an English reader these rustic comedies of law may appear exaggerations, yet although Maupassant died thirty years ago, and although in these thirty years the world has made unbelievable advances, our juge de paix might well have taken lessons from those invented by the French novelist. The judge’s opening in Tribunaux Rustiques,  “Madame Bascule, articulez vos griefs,” would seem to us at first glance written for farce had our juge de paix not used the identical phrase often enough: so, too, the judge’s exaggerated simplicity in La cas de Madame Luneau.

“HIPPOLOYTE: Je m'eclaire, monsieur le juge. Or, qu'elle voulait un enfant et qu'elle me demandait ma participation. Je ne fis pas de difficultes, et elle me promit cent francs. . .
“LE JUGE DE PAIX: Je ne vous comprends pas du tout. Vous dites qu'elle voulait un enfant? Comment?  Quel genre d'enfant? Un enfant pour l'adopter?
“HIPPOLYTE: Non, monsieur le juge, un neuf
‘LE JUGE DE PAIX:  Qu'entendez vous par ces mots: 'Un neuf?”

As a general rule the juge de paix does not hold that serious angle to the law which we would consider correct in an English magistrate. To some extent the judge seems to take both the law he is administering as well as the pleader as a kind of joke; he is like a humorous master settling a difference between a cook and a housemaid, neither of whom  he is willing to loose. Contrasting with this humor, sometimes tart on the part of the judge, is the ceremony of the court in which these rough-handed litigants – some of who can only speak in patois, losing themselves in long-winded explanations – are dubbed officially le Sieur Lachose or le Sieur Untel; and the judge sometimes uses these pretentious sounding titles to whip up his satire.

To add to the strange quality of these village courts of justice is the passionate eloquence of the barristers. These are two as a rule, brought at some expense from Francheville, one a stolid rustic sort of a man who does generally confine himself top a blunt exposition of his clients case: the other, the most admired, the tail-coated, rather jaundiced individual before mentioned. He has a gift for pathos – and bathos too. Eloquence in France is a serious affair. The oration of Sergeant Buzfuz for Mrs. Bardell pales before some of the jaundiced barrister’s copia verborum dealing with the matter of a branch illegally cut from a tree or a gate left swinging open from malice: to hear him on the depredations of an errant goat was to be flooded with as much emotion as would have served many an actor for Mark Anthony weeping over the body of Caesar.

The council chamber has a large green baize-covered table at which the councilors of the village seat themselves solemnly and do their simple best to retard progress. Here generally one can find Raymond asleep, his bulging forehead couched upon a pile of municipal literature, snoring away his 2000 francs per annum. The chamber of justice is small and white-washed. A railing divides it in two, on the far side of which is the judge’s table, also green covered, raised on a dais. To his left a lower table serves the clerk of the court by whose side a couple of chairs seat the barristers, who here plead without robes or bands. Nor does the judge himself mount signs of office, he sits rather plumply rubicund, half bored, half sardonic, with a large wen just appearing where his hair is thinning. There are chairs, half a dozen or so, at the disposal of an audience, but usually there is no audience. The litigants gather on the landing of the Mairie, and creep bashfully as their names are called by the greffier.

“Le Sieur Anselm Chose contre Madame Paulette Maschin, “ etc.

The litigants are of several varieties. There is the chronic plaintiff, usually a woman; there is the chronic defendant, usually a man. Both are egoists, the first too conscious of her neighbor’s vices, the second too unconscious of his neighbor’s rights. A type of the first was remarkable enough to be worthy of notice. She was an ex-nun who had left her convent to marry, but who has remained a devotional bigot. She was a lank, lean woman, with a pallid face ridged like plough land and two black pearls of eyes. She crossed herself whenever she passed the Hotel Sestrol because Raymond had said in jest that he and his family were atheists; but not Christian charity disturbed her conscience. She snapped into law at the slightest pretext, the terror of her neighbors.

Both types of litigants are well known to the juge de paix, who greets them with a rough grunt something like that of a hoarse pig:

“Euh, euh! Qu'est-ce que vous ronge cette fois-ci.”

There is the litigant who talks as though there can be no question on the other side, and the litigant who hardly dares to state his own case; there is the amicable litigant who can be seen drinking with his opponent before entering the Mairie and who has another drink with him to toasty the decision whichever way it may be; there is the sly litigant who tries clownishly to hide the essential facts, but who is almost invariably brought to book with acid comments by monsieur le juge; there is the hysterical witness; the silent witness; the loquacious. To all the judge is a sort of legal Father O’Flynn, sometimes forced to translate his decisions into patois when his suitors cannot understand the French. But often the litigants who do know French are unable to understand the legal form of the judge’s summing up and stand silent, perplexed and gaping at the bar until the greffier chases them on to the landing; where they still hang about wondering how things have actually been decided between them.

The more serious village affairs do not come before the juge de paiz, they go to the tribunal at Francheville. Sometimes, however, the judge is an echo of the Francheville court, for instance, in the case of assault, the victim pleads for damages in the village after the aggressor has been punished officially in town. Thus the aggressor  pays double law expenses. Yet murder did come to us, both present and past. A girl of eighteen, turned out by her uncle, having given birth all alone hidden in a hayloft, strangled her illegitimate child. The baker was furious. He waved his thin fingers under the nose of Potato ( a local bottler, the blacksmith’s brother)who being fat, was inclined to leniency. The baker, who had smashed a comrade’s foot for a careless insult, was self-righteously indignant with this half-distraught baby killer.

“We must finish with these self-taken liberties,” he coughed hoarsely. “No pity. Off with her head.”

But she was acquitted. The French look with what appears to the English a lenient eye upon murder. Murder they seem to consider a crime only in dastardly cases. Give murder an epithet, tag it on to some perturbation of spirit, and the slayer escapes. Love, jealousy, hate, anger, fear, political passion, or even commercial interest, are held to be spiritual cyclones which acting on normal humanity can whirl it outside itself –beside himself, as we say – and so a crime committed outside of humanity is considered almost outside the law.

A curious feature of psychology this, that these French who are so primitively mosaic in their politics – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – should have travelled so far away from that boasted basis of human security, a life for a life. They do not hold that a misdeed committed in individual frenzy is to be balanced by another misdeed committed in communal revenge; they do not hold that for murder, the last unpardonable theft, restitution can be made by a forfeiture in kind. Still, we must think the French very lenient in murder. It was a question of café debate whether Landru, the modern Bluebeard, would not get off. A barrister, playing with his eloquence upon the heart-strings of a jury –which one must confess often seems to carry emotionalism beyond the limits of even a farce- has released how many assassins back into society. It is true that murder rarely becomes a habit. But we remember a satirical article in a French paper proving the only person one might not murder with impunity to be a total stranger, since no sentimental excuse could be found for murdering him. .  .

The juge de paix at Najac does not touch on such grave matters as these. He travels from canton to canton, an affable, slightly pompous, slightly sardonic, peace-maker, an ambulating olive branch dipped in vinegar.

“Exposez vos griefs,” says monsieur le juge